Chapter 3 - Sunken Bounties
Thick briny fog rolled across the deck, a pervasive density that made it near impossible to see the stretch of the ocean in any given direction. Lightning streaked across the caliginous sky. Thunder crackled and boomed, taking to the air like maleficent gods coming to blows. Monstrous waves towered over the Sea Gypsy, slamming against the ship, flooding the teetering deck. The crew scrambled desperately through the cloudburst, groping their way through every violent jolt of the ship.
We followed all routine checks the moment we noticed the air grow charged with the oncoming storm – tied off sails, battened down the hatches, checked cargo lashings and secured all derricks on deck – but we had been unable to fathom the sheer magnitude of it.
Caught in its centre, I realised that no amount of heavy weather preparation, nor careful navigation, would free us from within the hopeless tangles of the storm.
Rain poured down in torrents; the wind blew hard. With half the crew wounded or drowned, few remained to brave the violent convulsions of the ship. The raging tempest swallowed up every man battling to resecure the shredded sails billowing wildly from the damaged spars.
I had steered through many a storm with a firm hand on the helm, but none as fierce and terrifying. Hours later, the waves had lost none of their fury. Loud thunderclaps retained command of the blackened skies as the malignant wind blew in on the starboard beam. Together with her destruction, the Sea Gypsy was quickly taking on water and we made no further pretence of guiding her through.
There was nothing more to be done, no way to take the broken wheel, nowhere to hide from the torrential deluge.
My grip tightened on the square-rigged foremast, the blunt ellipses of my nails digging deep into the slippery timber. My clothes clung to my frame, heavy and wet. The muscles in my arms and thighs felt numb.
Then the Sea Gypsy broached into a forward slope, slewing around broadside, near capsizing into the icy water. I barely kept my grip on the mast. Hair plastered against my face, I watched Peg-leg’s wooden limb break free from under him as a wave crashed midship and washed him from the deck.
Hell and damnation!
My heart ached for the sorry bastard, but I supposed there were crueller fates. He could still be clinging to the fractured foremast of a sinking ship.
I scrunched my eyes, willing this nightmare to be over. If the storm didn’t abate soon, what remained of our crew will be drifting several leagues down with the dead.
The sea of darkness was imbued with superstition – with sorcery and illusion – of compass needles spinning on their pivots, the spotting of ghostly ships, of monsters with the upper bodies of women and tails of fish, and not a one suggested the Sea Gypsy would be bobbling along placid waters come morning.
But I’d seen none of that, and no accounts could be backed with solid proof.
If this storm marked the entrance to Tartarus, which was said to be a place of punishment for the wicked, then to get to its treasure would have us cast into the abyss.
I was as eager as any pirate for troves of gold, bullion, and jewels, but I wasn’t so down on my uppers that I’d go ravening after sunken bounty. If I did, we would have had better fortune swimming after the San José, the Spanish treasure galleon, sunk by the British Navy, too. Or better be it to plunder across the Philippines, chancing our lives between Shanghai and Manilla.
Gods, I’d rather any other treasure if it meant a little plain sailing.
The ship creaked under the weight of the sea’s wrath, pitching and rolling with the violent beating of waves against the hull. I sputtered through the spray and coughed into my arm. My lungs burned from salt inhalation, every ragged breath a puff of regret for crossing into the Devil’s Triangle. If I came across Trapper in the hereafter, I’d be sworn to stab the double-dealing swindler again.
White lightning flashed across the skies and a loud crash of thunder followed, hitting its crescendo with a roaring crack that ripped the Sea Gypsy’s hull structure forward from aft. The crevice widened, crumbling down the deck. Men scurried like rats up the rigging of the larger mast as the lower decks went under, pushing and pulling to be the first to reach the highest point, the crow’s nest. Many fell into the water, a couple through the yawning boards of the deck.
Gargantuan waves thrust forward, growing larger still, rocking the Sea Gypsy, dwarfing her. My feet slipped under me, tottering for balance on the slick timber.
Sure to be losing my senses, I caught glimpses of high carved cliffs through the downpour and mist, only to be startled from the illusive sight by a dinner plate-sized hand, rough with corns and calluses, gripping my upper arm. My throat tightened when I recognised the familiar bulk. “Bones!”
“Time t’ jump ship, Cap’n!” he bellowed over the storm.
“She sinks, damn ye! Yer clingin’ t’ yer death!”
Fuck, he’s right.
The silent acknowledgement of defeat caused a burning sensation in my gut. It could be a matter of minutes before she’s completely halved by the storm and sucks us into the dark sea chasm with her. Even without making the conscious decision to abandon ship, I was dead tired and wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer.
Blast! Our only chance at survival was quite possibly going to kill us.
The rest of the crew, those that didn’t compete for the mainmast, already started jumping ship with some expectancy of a better outcome. I watched three more of my men disappear into the bowels of the sea before turning to Bones again.
Though an improvement on the single-masted sloop the English had sunk, the Sea Gypsy’s battle-ready structure had done us no favours this day. We had been greatly bettered. We were no match for the gods who vented their spleen in the welkin – in sooth, so fucking far off the mark.
Maritime tradition regulated that a captain at sea holds responsibility for his ship and everyone thereon embarked. It was the law of the sea, but it wasn’t mine. Since many of my crew were gone and I had no passengers to convey, it didn’t rightly apply anyway.
I wasn’t about to stare down death from the bridge, or rather, from wrapped around a splintered mast, because of some misplaced code of honour. I was a pirate, for God’s sake. The oaths we swore were different, and not as set in stone.
It was time to let her go.
Resolute, I twisted my shoulder in Bones’ grip so that he had a grasp of my lower arm. The wind tugged at my drenched clothes, my hair, and I well-nigh lost my hold on the broken, smaller mast.
“T’gether!” I shouted.
Then, we let go of her.
The ship rolled on its keel and the motion sent us airborne for a short time before we were slung against the taffrail, and the next large wave swept us up.
The water closed in rapidly around us, dark and disorienting.
God’s teeth, cold too, chasing the heat from my skin.
Air rushed from my mouth and nose before I could hold my breath. Kicking my legs, I tried to propel myself towards the surface. My hands felt around me for Bones. We got separated, and worse yet, too overwhelmed by the heavy, oppressive depths, I could only swim towards what I assumed to be the upwards direction.
My lungs burned with the need to breathe. I felt the pressure of it on my chest, the panic pounding against my ribs. I tried to suppress the natural instinct to inhale that flared inside me. Not breathing was like willing your heart to cease beating. Impossible to control.
Black spots edged across my vision. My body throbbed with cold and fatigue, muscles cramped up. My pulse hammered in my ears and against my temples. Every bit and bone in my body was screaming for air. I couldn’t focus my thoughts, couldn’t form a single coherent thread.
Without conscious thought or decision, I gave into my body’s urgency for air. To take a breath. To lift the pressure from my chest.
I needed it. That was more apparent than ever. So I took it.
And it hurt.
I clawed through the water mass when the flood of brine hit my throat, my movements wild. The agony made my stomach roll. I felt my head grow groggy and my struggles slowed down, until I stopped thrashing. A sudden calm enveloped me despite sensing I’d never break the surface again. Fighting the inevitable only made me sink that much faster.
Shortly after, my panic buzzed out to a soft hum. My mind faltered. I was drifting, slowly floating away. The worst of the pain faded. Except for the light-headedness and the ache in my head, dying didn’t hurt all that much anymore.
As I was being swallowed deeper into the darkness, I loosely considered my fate to moulder in the currents. I wasn’t too adversely affected by the thought, not too upset.
There were worse ways – and much worse places – for a pirate to go.
More seawater gushed down my throat and into my full, waterlogged lungs. I twitched. Dying, I knew. Comfortably surrendering to the deep.
Then something brushed against my arm, slimy, sharp.
My eyes opened, though not as fast as I would have liked. My eyelids were heavy with lead, unrushed even by the new sense of dread that settled in my stomach. I felt the loss of calm, felt it shatter into a thousand distant pieces.
There it was again, flicking against my calf. A razor-sharp, faraway sting. I convulsed on another intake of water. I couldn’t see anything, and I didn’t know whether it was for the better or worse.
Was it Bones come to rescue me?
That didn’t sit right. Where was he then? Why take his time about it?
I knew then it was some sea creature come to take me for its meal. I sensed its menace against my chilled skin, its presence waiting, circling, even as everything else faded away. Painlessly. Slow.
That’s when I heard it, the singing. I imagined it to be an angel’s voice, but that wasn’t right. The voice was too husky, too suggestive to be hailing from above the sky, and my sins too many.
Phrases of song touched my mind, echoing eerily through my head, just as my vision faded to blackness.
The Captain I will take, to feast on when he wakes. Sad, sad… bad, bad men.